Wrestling expert Scarlett Harris looks at the impact of the all-women’s WWE Evolution in 2018 for women in wrestling.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
From the days of bra and panties matches to when there was not even a women’s wrestling match on the card at all, the world of women’s wrestling is providing more opportunities and exposure for women in one of the world’s most popular forms of sports entertainment.
And it’s timely to reflect on these gains as World Wrestling Entertainment’s first—and to this date, only—all-women’s wrestling show, Evolution, celebrates its fifth anniversary on 28th October.
MMA fighter-turned-wrestler Ronda Rousey faced Total Divas and Total Bellas star Nikki Bella (now known professionally as Nikki Garcia) in the 2018 main event. The recently-returned Nia Jax won the 20-woman battle royal, first eliminating Aussie tag team Peyton Royce and Billy Kay, and Becky Lynch, who has risen to stratospheric heights in the years since, beat Charlotte Flair for the SmackDown Women’s Championship (now Women’s World Championship) in a hellacious last woman standing match. There was nary a piece of underwear in sight.
Women in professional wrestling have made other gains since that fateful night. The aforementioned Lynch, along with Flair and Rousey, were the first women to main event the industry’s biggest show, WrestleMania, in 2019 while Sasha Banks (now known as Mercedes Moné) and Bianca Belair were the first two Black wrestlers of any gender to go on in the event’s final match in 2021.
And this developing global stage for women’s wrestling is also allowing Aussie exports to take their chance in the ring.
South Australia’s own Rhea Ripley, who came up in Adelaide’s Riot City Wrestling before WWE snapped the 26-year-old up in 2017, has had a banner year, winning the women’s Royal Rumble match and capturing the Women’s World Championship at this year’s WrestleMania.
It is particularly exciting to see Ripley at the top of her game as the WWE prepares to return to Australia in February 2024 for Elimination Chamber in Perth, the first pay-per-view since 2018’s Super Show-Down at the MCG. This was the event which coincidentally featured matches and storylines that laid the groundwork for Evolution.
WWE’s first Australian woman wrestler, Emma (known to local Melbourne fans as Tenille Dashwood), and who was signed to the company in 2011 and returned for a brief stint last year, will unfortunately not be on the card as she was released hours after expressing excitement for the show on social media.
While the aforementioned tag team the IIconics—Royce and Kay, now going by their birth names Cassie Lee and Jessica McKay—left WWE in 2021 perhaps owing to their Kath and Kim schtick not translating to an American audience, Ripley perhaps has a je ne sais quoi that previous Aussie women wrestlers have not. Ripley originally presented a sun-kissed blonde adhering to what has long been the preferred look for women in WWE, she now cuts a more gothic, menacing figure more on par with another crossover female wrestling star, the late Joan “Chyna” Laurer, demonstrating the important focus on theatrics and character also needed in the sport.
These advancements signify that women have achieved some moves towards equality in wrestling, but when we reflect on the gains in gender equality in sport, including sports entertainment, we need to look deeper into what has led to change and if it is authentic.
The game changing Evolution event was originally created only to placate women wrestlers and their advocates in the wake of WWE’s ten-year deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2018 as part of the country’s Vision 2030 initiative which in part works to advance women’s participation in sport which they had previously been barred from. However women were not permitted to wrestle at WWE’s events until the following year.
Wrestling’s version of #MeToo, ‘#SpeakingOut’, gained traction in 2020, and while the campaign resulted in many abusive wrestlers and managers being ousted, some of them have crept back in, including WWE’s executive chairman Vince McMahon, who has multiple sexual assault allegations against him and was stood down and internally investigated for sexual misconduct last year. McMahon returned earlier in 2023 upon WWE’s estimated $21.4 billion dollar merger with UFC.
Any gains made for women’s wrestling are largely individual or representative and the women still remain in precarious positions around some problematic men. Rousey might be able to command a big salary because of her name recognition outside of the industry. Wrestlers such as Lynch and Liv Morgan have appeared in acting roles in Hollywood, and Mercedes Moné can charge more in appearance fees because she bet on herself, but where does that leave the rest of the women on the roster who don’t enjoy such protections?
It’s great to see women featured more prominently and in respected roles, and opportunities open up for Australian women wrestlers in this highly competitive industry, but without any ratified protections such as equal pay or guaranteed screen time for women’s matches, they continue take a back seat to the perceived more important—read: men’s—matches. Five years after Evolution, WWE still needs one.
And maybe it will be an Australian at the forefront of change when the WWE touches down in Perth in 2024.
The question is, can Ripley hold onto the Women’s World Championship until February? Or will she be better placed to be chasing the title, with her home country in her corner, cheering her towards recapturing it? And maybe it doesn’t matter, as bringing WWE to Australia, where so many of our women athletes are driving change for gender equality in sport, might be the bigger opportunity for victory.
Scarlett Harris is a Melbourne author and culture critic. You can find her work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris and read her book, A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler: An Abbreviated Herstory of World Wrestling Entertainment.